‘El Noroeste’ exhibit at TAM offers a must-see glimpse into Chicano/a and Latine culture

Rosemary Montalvo

Walking into the gallery, a sense of familiarity took over. The room was filled with vibrant canvases of various sizes, colorful glass sculptures and photographs. The room was also filled with people who looked like me. I only recently moved to Tacoma, and being 1,000 miles from my home in Southern California, I’ve longed to be in a setting where I didn’t feel like the odd one out.

I found that setting at the “El Noroeste” exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum. It was unlike anything else I have ever seen or experienced at a major art museum.

I was also lucky enough to have had the chance to view the exhibit on the day of the opening reception on September 23.

Over 300 people filled the main floor area, walking through the exhibit and through the gift shop while waiting for the highly-anticipated guest speaker, Cheech Marin, an actor and Chicano art advocate with one of the largest private Chicano art collections in America. (You can see my interview with him for the Tribune here.)

A sense of pride filled the air, but why wouldn’t it? Artwork from 21 Chicano and Latine artists from all over Washington state are on display at a major art museum, and people from all over the state, as well as people from other states came just to see their art. Si se pudo. Yes, it was possible.

There were lots of congratulations going around between event organizers from TAM, and Mi Centro, a non-profit that works with Latino and Indigenous families, as well as between the artists themselves.

Relating to Latine art

If I am being completely honest, I have never really understood art. I have walked through several art museums like the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA), the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, but I never really understood what I was looking at, and I definitely never formed a connection with the art.

But “El Noroeste” was different.

I instantly formed a connection with every piece of artwork in that gallery because although I might not share the same experience as the artist, I share the same culture. You see, I am first generation Mexican-American woman that was born in Inglewood, California and I’ve lived in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. I grew up seeing a lot of Chicano/a art, but I didn’t know that was what I was seeing since it was never associated with high-value art. The murals that were painted on the walls in the neighborhoods that I grew up in typically had negative connotations of our culture and were looked down upon.

The artwork at TAM gave me a look into the artists’ view of our culture and their communities through their own perspective and their experiences of being Chicano/a or Latine.

At one point, my 14-year-old niece who accompanied me to the event looked over at me and asked me what the glass art we were looking at meant. Titled “La Noche Triste” by David Rios, the piece consisted of blown glass prayer candles, a cup of water, pan dulce and a molcajete. I explained to her that I couldn’t say with certainty, but from my experience with these elements and by the name, it seemed to me that this was a kind of altar or an ofrenda similar to the ones we build for Dia De Los Muertos.

Although I wasn’t certain of the true meaning behind the glass sculpture, it was the first time I had ever been able to explain what I thought an art piece meant or represented. Sharing this experience with my niece, introducing her to Chicano/a and Latine art and hearing her ask questions and be intrigued by the artwork made this gallery that much more special to me.

I felt such an overwhelming sense of joy to see my culture on display and to see Chicano and Latine artists’ work being recognized and celebrated in such a large space. I was in a space where I felt seen, especially since I, much like many other Chicano/as and Latines, have struggled so much with my identity. For a long time, I felt that to some people I was too Mexican and to others I was too American. There was a time in my early teen years where I even felt ashamed of my Mexican roots because of how society made me feel about my brown complexion.

But I was eventually able to reconnect with my roots and I have learned to embrace and love my Mexican culture.

Why representation matters

Representation of Chicano/a and Latine culture in all avenues is important because our stories add to the history of this country and as time goes on, we continue to make up more and more of the population. Between 2010 and 2022, the U.S. population grew by 24.5 million and Hispanics accounted for 53% of that growth, according to the Pew Research Center. Chicano/a and Latine history has been consistently overlooked for so long. Many people do not learn about the battles that Chicano/a and Latines faced in this country until they take a Chicano studies class in college.

I remember sitting in a class during my last semester of undergrad and a professor asking the class if they knew anything about the Zoot Suit Riots that happened in the summer of 1943, and no one, except for me, had ever heard of this incident. Chicano/a and Latine history and experiences are part of American history and deserve to be told.

Tacoma Art Museum is skillfully using their platform to elevate and share local Chicano/a and Latine artists work on a bigger scale is a step toward increasing representation in the art world.

The exhibit showcases artwork by Vanessa Mercedes, a Chicana artist whose paintings are influenced by magical realism and surrealism. There’s artwork by Daniel Lopez, an oil painter that combines his roots, culture and love for renaissance art in his work. There is also glass artwork by Manolo Aguilar, a glassblower from Veracruz at the exhibit.

This exhibit is unlike any other, and I highly encourage others to take the time and go see it for themselves and see what these artists have to say about their community and culture. Engage with the art and support the highly talented local Chicano/a and Latine artists.

Like Cheech Marin said, “You can’t hate or love Chicano art unless you see it.”

Cover Photo: Guests walk through the “El Noroeste” exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum during the opening reception on Sept. 23. Leti Solis

Publisher’s Notes: Washington Latino News (WALN) and The News Tribune are partners in best serving the public. This article was first published as ‘El Noroeste’ exhibit at TAM offers a must-see glimpse into Chicano/a and Latine culture iThe News Tribune, and was republished with permission.